Welcome to my new column, A Restrospective Look.

This series will take a look back at video games that have hit a significant milestone in time – be it release date, end of service date, and more – and talk about what works and what doesn’t work in the game through a modern 2024 viewpoint. While this column will not be nearly as regularly published as Cooking Eorzea (my FINAL FANTASY XIV Online-themed cooking column), I will try to do new installments decently often.

First up? Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII.

Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII was the capstone action-RPG to the FINAL FANTASY XIII trilogy that first kicked off on North American shores in March 2010. With this final entry released on Feb 11, 2014 – 10 years ago this week – in North America, I wanted to take a look back to this oft-forgotten sequel SQUARE ENIX game and talk about what worked and what didn’t work with it through my modern-day eyes.

To put my experience with Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII out there: I started the game back in early Nov 2015, and I finished it up in the latter part of Feb 2016. I completed all the side quests that I could on a single playthrough, defeated the ultimate enemy fight, and completed the main storyline. Since that time, I have been obsessed with the OST, and I listen to it quite often in my day-to-day life. In writing this column, I re-watched a lot of cutscenes for the game, reviewed the official player’s guide, and thought back at conversations that I’ve had with friends as I was originally exploring this title.

Finally: all opinions are, obviously, my own.

So, with all that said, let’s start off with…

The Schemata System
(AKA Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII’s Class System)

Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII’s biggest strength, both at launch and now in 2024, is the Schemata class system. While only Lightning is playable in this game, the player was allowed to set three different Schemata classes for her at a time and flip between them with a press of the L1/LB and R1/RB buttons. What made the Schemata system so cool though was that almost all of the classes were able to be bought from NPC stores scattered throughout the game, and they all played differently and slotted into different gameplay roles. You could further customize each Schema by equipping one weapon, one shield, two accessories, one adornment, and up to four abilities!

Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII | Selecting Schemata to configure.
You could equip up to three Schema at a time, and each one had a variety of skills and equipment for you to use. (Images courtesy of SQUARE ENIX).

This turned each Schema into pretty much whatever you wanted it to be, and there was no real top-tier end-all-be-all layout but instead you could adapt the different jobs to fit in the roles that you needed them to be. If you wanted to be a ‘tank’ class that can handle magic, then so be it. If you want to be a healer who can also deal serious damage, then have at it!

Mi'quote Dress Schema crossover from FINAL FANTASY XIV Online.
In a crossover from FINAL FANTASY XIV Online, Lightning has a Miqo’te Dress Schema available to equip for battle. (Image courtesy of SQUARE ENIX).

This element of Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII is something that I’ve honestly wanted to see replicated in other FINAL FANTASY games, but to no avail. More customization is always a good thing, and I loved being able to set up my party however I wish with the Schemata system. It is a very fresh system, even in today’s video game landscape.

Lightning’s Return: FINAL FANTASY XIII’s Story Set-Up (Even If The Plot Didn’t Quite Land)

I love the story setup for Lightning’s Return: FINAL FANTASY XIII.

Lightning, blaming herself for Serah dying at the end of FINAL FANTASY XIII-2, puts herself in an endless sleep she describes ‘as dark as death’ as she dreams of a day where she can bring her beloved sibling back. Lightning is awoken by God, and she is told that the world will end in 13 days. God bestows upon her the title of Savior and tells her that she has to save as many souls as she can in the time that remains before Chaos consumes all. Lightning strikes a deal: If she plays the role of Savior and keeps the world going for 13 more days, then her reward is a ‘Miracle.’

That ‘Miracle’? Serah will get to live again.

To carry out Lightning’s mission, God reverted Hope back to the child form he had in FINAL FANTASY XIII and placed him in command of the Ark- Cocoon’s remnants.  Hope turns out to be the one who told Lightning about God’s plan to build a brand-new world and about God’s offer to bring Serah back. They both acknowledge what a cruel bargain it is by God to make. And if all this wasn’t enough, both Lightning and Hope realize they no longer have the ability to feel emotions anymore.

Lightning and Hope together on the Ark.
Lightning and Hope on the Ark – the only place where time stands still as they work together. (Images courtesy of SQUARE ENIX).

Hope then reveals that 500 years have passed since Chaos was unleashed to consume the world, and it nearly succeeded in drowning the planet. What is left of the world is now called Nova Chrysalia. With all that destruction also came another kind of horror: immortality. No one, not even children, can grow older, and there is no more new life born. Instead, everyone waits around for violence, accidents, and sickness to eventually claim them. One. By. One.

As we play through Lighting Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII, we see everyone else’s story get setup.

Vanille, awaking a few years before Lightning does, believes that God is punishing her and she is willing to sacrifice herself to save the dead from suffering further in Chaos. Fang has lost Vanille to the Order of Salvation cult and now lives outside of what passes for ‘modern society.’ Sazh spends his time trying to find his son’s soul in a desperate search that has destroyed his upbeat personality. And Noel? He has become a murderous vigilante who believes he has to kill Lightning. Finally, there is Snow. Unable to get past his grief from Serah’s death, he presides over a never-ending party in a brilliantly glowing city called Yusnaan. He has held this role for centuries, and he now wishes to simply die.

Snow in Yusnaan.
Snow has not been able to get over Serah’s death over the past half-millennia. (Images courtesy of SQUARE ENIX).

Snow looking over the city of Yusnaan.

Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII is a bright, colorful, beautiful game that is also absolutely depressing to play in the most wonderful way possible. Each of the characters are wrapped up in a deep ocean of sadness, and all of their stories intersect repeatedly as those 13 days left pass. So many RPGs always present a world of happiness and hope at the start of the game, and Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII does not give you that. Instead, the stakes are clear: Thirteen days, and the world ends. Thirteen days, and you might get what you want and bring Serah back to life. Thirteen days to undo centuries of unhappiness that shackle everyone of Nova Chrysalia.

I was immediately hooked by all of this, as I haven’t played a FINAL FANTASY game that felt this hopeless since FINAL FANTASY XIV Online 1.0 when you knew that Dalamud was going to come down from the sky with the end of the Seventh Umbral Era.

Vanille in Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII.
Vanille, Sazh, and others have greatly changed over the past 500 years. (Images courtesy of SQUARE ENIX.)

Sazh in Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII.

Unfortunately, the story’s execution did not quite live up to the set up for each of the characters – and for Nova Chrysalia – at the game’s start. I don’t want to spoil that for anyone who might want to pick up this game after reading this, after all. The plot fell kind of flat for me in the third act, and I found myself not really caring about some of the main plot threads that led up to that. I unfortunately blame the writing more than anything for this, but I am still in love with the game overall. It isn’t a bad game by any means storywise – just didn’t feel as satisfying as I would hope it to be.

But the world’s setting, and the awful deal that Lightning strikes to save Serah? is insanely memorable and it is a perfect way to start off the conclusion to the FINAL FANTASY XIII trilogy. And the story concepts still work, even now in 2024.

The Amazing, Powerful, Almost-Perfect Soundtrack

Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII does not have a theme song like pretty much every other modern FINAL FANTASY game does. Instead, the three composers for the game (Masashi Hamauzu, Naoshi Mizuta, and Mitsuto Suzuki) used Blinded by Light as a reoccurring theme throughout the game. The original soundtrack (‘OST’) was released across four discs, and it runs for just a bit more than five hours. The only track I did not care for on the OST is the very, very jarring Fang’s Theme ~A False Leader~, which sounds like a steel mill singalong – complete with swinging hammers on anvils – before switching over to a soft bridge and then back to the hammers on anvils again. It simply isn’t great.

Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII Original Soundtrack
The cover art from Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII Original Soundtrack, which spanned four discs and is still available for sale on the SQUARE ENIX Store. (Image courtesy of SQUARE ENIX).

For me, the standout piece is Lightning’s Theme- A Distant Glimmer by Masashi Hamauzu. It starts with just a piano, and then it just continually builds up from a simple, sad theme into an overlapping strings and piano composition with a lot of joy in it. Music can communicate so much about a character, and Lightning’s Theme- A Distant Glimmer truly paints Lightning as a character who starts with no hope and happiness before she begins to find herself again throughout Lighting Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII.

I truly believe that Lightning’s Theme- A Distant Glimmer would be perfect for a video game concert such as A New World: intimate music from FINAL FANTASY, and I will never fail to suggest its inclusion among other series greats like Aerith’s Theme and Sarutabaruta. This soundtrack still is an amazing listen, even in 2024, and should not be slept on.

Chronostatis, Eradia, and the Divisiveness of Those
Gameplay Mechanics

The in-game time management system – Chronostatis and Eradia – are probably what people think about the most whenever they talk about Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII, and with good reason as it is the single most divisive element of the game.

To set up the lore: God will awake after 13 days. When that happens, this world will be done for and he will make a new world to replace it. There is nothing that can prevent this from happening on a set timetable. That is, other than Lighting offering up her life force in bits and pieces to push that deadline back by stopping time. Hope calls this life energy Eradia – but it is tracked as Energy Points (or ‘EP’) in the game.

Each in-game day lasts for one real life hour. That means that an in-game hour lasts for two-and-a-half minutes, and that a minute on Nova Chrsyalis lasts only two-and-a-half real-life seconds. In other words, time moves very, very fast in Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII. You can stop it by spending a single EP to pause time for 30 in-game minutes, which equates to a minute and 15 real-life seconds.

You can replenish EP most easily by killing enemies in the world. Unfortunately, there are only a finite number of enemies out in the world, and so you cannot just kill indiscriminately, as you’ll end up using up the best way to replenish EP during each in-game day. So, you have to balance how quickly and often you kill enemies in the game.

Finally, certain NPCs and quests are locked behind certain times of the day. If you miss the time window for an event, then you can’t do it for that day.

In game menu with time-gated mechanics.
That clock in the upper right corner never really goes away, and sometimes you will have to wait around for time gated items to become available. (Images courtesy of SQUARE ENIX).

In game menu with time-gated mechanics.

What all of this means is that Chronostatis and tracking the in-game passage of time takes over everything else if you want to complete the game in a single 13-day cycle. I actually used the schedule laid out in the official player’s guide – alongside the internet – in order to make it happen, and I was constantly obsessing over time and making sure I hit areas when I needed to in order to get all of the story beats (which you have to absolutely do in a single run-in order to properly finish the game) and all of the side quests done in one go.

The completionist in me disliked it then, and I dislike it even more now as it is one of the most stressful gameplay experiences I’ve ever had. Even when I was deep into the game and it was clear I was going to finish Lighting Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII in one go, I was still stressing about making my ‘appointments.’ If you want to play video games to just relax and have fun, then Chronostatis will really damper that for you. If you are a completionist like I am, then Chronostatis will drive you insane.

Tick, tick, tick. Time is constantly slipping away, and it feels like I can never do enough at all. And yes, I know that if I don’t manage to save everyone and complete all the story beats in a timely manner, then I will get a second chance in a sorta ‘new game plus’ that carries all my stuff over. But I really just want to do it all in one go, anyway.

I really think do that Chronostatis was innovative, but it simply is too divisive to be a series mainstay – especially in 2024 – and it is what will turn people off to the game.

And there you have it!

These are my thoughts on Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII, and what worked – and what didn’t – while looking at it through the eyes of someone a decade post-North American release. Ultimately, Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII is a game that still brings a lot of enjoyable value in 2024, if you can get past the Chronostatis and Eradia/EP gameplay system.

When A Retrospective Look returns next, I will be talking at what worked-and-didn’t-work for BABYLON’S FALL. (Yep, I played this game before end-of-service.)

BABYLON'S FALL gameplay screenshot.
I platinumed BABYLON’S FALL and completed all the story content before end-of-service, and I have a lot of thoughts about what worked and did not work for this game from a 2024 viewpoint. (Image courtesy of SQUARE ENIX).

Please look forward to it!

Did you play Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII?

What do you think about Lightning’s final adventure? Did you love the music like I did, and does it all hold up well in a 2024 perspective?

Let me know in the comments below!

Quentin H.
I have been a journalist for oprainfall since 2015, and I have loved every moment of it.